Getting to Know Your Camera: Aperture Basics

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Great light, thoughtful composition and an understanding of aperture are the most important aspects of achieving beautiful photography. If you’ve found yourself drooling over photographs you see on Facebook that seem to turn your friends’ children into models cast against dreamy backgrounds, then pay attention. Those photos are created and controlled by your camera’s aperture.

We’re starting here because aperture can be one of the most complicated and frustrating parts of getting to know your camera. That said, once you understand the power of aperture and how to utilize it, everything else will fall into place. 


What is Aperture?

Aperture or f/stop is one of 3 main controls you use to take a photograph. Along with shutter speed and ISO, aperture controls how much light will hit the sensor.  The f/stop on a lens can go from 1.2 to 22 or higher.

The size of the aperture (or f/stop) controls the depth of field, which controls how much of your photo is in focus. Larger apertures (wider opening of the lens) allow more light to enter your camera at one time. So, when shooting “wide open,”  you have shallow focus, which means fewer items in your photo are in focus.

The photo below is a great example of using a larger or wider aperture. We wanted the focus of the image to be on the block, but also liked the vibrant color of the clutter in the background. A wide aperture turned an otherwise messy playroom into a beautiful backdrop.

Settings: f/2, 1/160, ISO 400

You may also want to consider using a wide aperture for the following reasons:

  • To focus attention on your subject (child or children) while keeping the background blurred.
  • To isolate your subject from an otherwise distracting background, such as your children’s playroom.
  • Because you have limited lighting and want to maintain a certain shutter speed (or prevent camera shake).
  • To create artsy photographs.

 

On the other hand, smaller apertures allow less light to enter through your lens. This means that more of your photo will be in focus. The photo below is a great example of how a more narrow aperture might be used. While most of us prefer to use a wide aperture (it took us a minute to find anything over f/4), closed apertures are often a necessity when you are photographing large groups of people and you want to be sure that everyone is in focus.

Settings: f/8, 1/200, ISO 640

You may also want to consider using a closed aperture for the following reasons:

  • When photographing landscapes.
  • To increase your depth of field in a close-up or macro shot, and ensure that the entire scene is in focus.
  • To capture fine details.
  • If you want to get creative with shutter speed and create motions blur shots or light trails.

Confused?

Okay, think of aperture in the same way you think of vision. 20/20 vision isn’t necessarily perfect vision, but it does indicate the sharpness or clarity of vision at a distance. Specifically, the sharpness or clarity of your vision at 20 feet. But, for the sake of the analogy, consider a person that has nearly perfect image can see nearly everything in focus whether it be near or far. 

Now think about having your eyes dilated. The optometrist uses the light to open your eyes really wide, but your vision is likely very blurry. The exact same thing happens with your camera’s lens. When you open your aperture up really wide, it lets a lot of light in, but very few things will be in focus. 

On a similar note, if you go outside in the middle of the day, you may find yourself squinting to reduce the amount of light coming in so that you can focus on the details in front of you. Again, the same thing happens with our camera’s lens. If you use a high aperture, it’s as if your lens is squinting. Therefore, you prevent light from getting in, resulting in more of your image in focus.

We don’t recommend shooting completely wide open or closed; at least not until you have a better understanding of your camera and lens capabilities. If you are using your kit lens, you are limited to f/3.5. In addition, most lens have a tendency to produce a “soft” focus when shooting wide open, and are much sharper about two stops above their maximum aperture. 

For example, if you own a 50 mm f/1.8 lens, you don’t actually want to shoot at f/1.8 if you want to achieve optimal sharpness and clarity. Try going up a couple of stops to f/2.2 or f/2.8. Take a few test shots and compare.

 


Practice! 


 

The only way to become a better photographer is through practice, so with each “Getting to Know Your Camera” lesson, we’ll offer an assignment.

This week’s assignment is to use Aperture Priority Mode on your camera, represented with an AV or A symbol on your camera’s mode dial (if you’re still not sure about your buttons, be sure to read the first lesson in this series). If you’ve always shot in auto mode, this may be a little challenging, but we think you can handle it. You are only responsible for setting the aperture. Your camera will set the shutter speed for you.

Once your camera is set to AV or A, go outside. Before you pull off your lens cover, let your camera warm up. “Warming up” isn’t necessary during mild weather days, but if it’s hot and humid outside (which it likely is this time of year), your camera will need some time adjust from being in an air conditioned room. Otherwise, your camera will fog up. It’s much easier to wait 10 minutes waiting for your camera to adjust than trying to fix the fog after the fact (trust us, we’ve been there too many times).

Now, find a fixed subject to photograph. We used one of our kid’s toys so that we could be in more control of the background and light, but you can use anything in your backyard (flower, chair, the mailbox, etc). If you have a child who is old enough to sit still, you can use them, but it may be easier to use an inanimate object for this challenge.

Round 1

  1. Set your ISO to either 200 or 400 (if you choose to stay inside, you’ll want to bump it up to 800 or higher).
  2. Set your f/stop to the lowest setting it will go (f/1.8 or f/3.5 depending on the lens).
  3. Compose your image and focus on one particular spot of your subject (we focused on the eyes of the toy).
  4. Take a photo.

Round 2

  1. Adjust your f/stop to  f/8.
  2. Compose and refocus on the same spot from your previous image.
  3. Take a photo.

Round 3

  1. Adjust your f/stop to the highest setting it will go: f/22 (or something equally as high).
  2. Compose and refocus on the same spot from the previous two images.
  3. Take a photo.

When you’re done, upload these three shots into whatever photo editing software you use and look at the difference a wider or smaller aperture makes.

Which aperture setting do you visually like the most? What is appealing or distracting about each image? What was the biggest challenge?


As we continue to learn more about shooting in manual and how to control lighting over the coming weeks, you may find that building your settings around your preferred aperture setting is the way to go. If you’re like us, you’ll become addicted to moderately wide open apertures that create beautiful, creamy, blurry backgrounds known as “bokeh.” Experiment and have fun with it. And of course, don’t hesitate to ask questions the comment section if you need a little help.

For more lessons on getting to know your camera, check out our post on 7 Basic Photography Rules.

Photo Credit: Ashley Sisk and Melisslissliss

 

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Ashley Sisk

Ashley lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children and Kitty Paw. She's a work-from-home mom with a natural light photography business and a passion for sharing everything she knows. Since leaving the corporate world, she now spends her time chasing her preschooler, nursing her new baby, writing and finding ways to enjoy life. You can find her on Facebook, Google + or on her website.

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